We left Tokyo early in the morning on December 30 on the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. There is no other word for this but cool. The trains are so sleek, and at their top speeds of nearly 200 mph, we flew through the country as the landscape literally became a blur. They were noiseless, smooth, and punctual. Such an enlightened way to travel.
Our journey of a cab, a high-speed rail trip, a metro transfer to a different station in Osaka, another train, a cable car, and finally a bus landed us in Koyasan, a remote mountain village that was founded as a Buddhist spiritual center in the 800s, around when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan.
Koyasan consists on one tiny main street with a small collection of shops and restaurants, several major temples, a huge historic cemetery, and about 30 Buddhist monasteries. Most visitors to Koyasan stay overnight at one of the Buddhist monasteries, many of which provide traditional ryokan-style lodging (like a Japanese inn or B&B) with meals and morning prayers with the monks also included. We stayed at the Jimyoin temple, and it was one of the highlights of our entire stay in Japan.
After getting settled into our room at the temple, where we enjoyed steaming cups of green tea while sitting on the floor under the traditional low table with a heated blanket, we ventured out in the rain to explore the sights.
According to Japan-Guide, “Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. A small, secluded temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters that Kobo Daishi built on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop. It is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the start and end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.”
We walked along the one main street of the village, crossed through the one traffic light, and entered Garan, Koyasan’s cental temple complex.
There are multiple temples, shrines, and pagodas here. It was incredibly atmospheric, and we had it almost entirely to ourselves. The freezing cold drizzly rain presented a bit of a challenge, but the spirituality here was palpable. It was easy to see how so many have found peace here and connections with higher beings, and a larger sense of purpose, over the centuries. There is a sense of stillness and presence here that is almost overwhelming. The near-desertion of the village and the misty rain only heightened these feelings.
After spending time in and out of the temples here (no photos allowed inside), we visited the Okunoin cemetery, a dense maze of grave sites and mausoleums that culminates with the the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan. The village would be pitch dark soon, and we wanted to visit this place before it was time to return to Jimyoin for the night.
I can’t say enough how powerful and mystical this place was. We walked two kilometers through the increasingly darkening cemetery until we arrived at the hall of 10,000 lanterns and Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. One of my favorite things about travel is feeling far away from everything that is familiar, and I certainly felt that way here, deep into a cemetery at the top of a mountain.
Upon our return to Jimyoin, we changed into the yakatas (traditional Japanese pajamas) provided, and settled down for our meal. We sat on the floor and two monks quickly brought in plate after plate of amazing Buddhist cuisine. Everything was vegan: lots of rice, tofu, and mountain vegetables, all prepared exquisitely. We had the best tempura of our lives, lots of green tea, several different kinds of picked vegetables, and plenty of things that we couldn’t quite identify, and it was all wonderful. Seriously. And I’m not just saying that because tofu and vegetables are among my favorite foods in the world; we both raved about it.
The entire time we were at Jimyoin was a lesson in guessing and learning the proper etiquette for experiences we knew very little about. The monks were very friendly and spoke very little English, and we were petrified of making any kind of a faux-pas or accidentally failing to heed an important tradition. We’re still not sure if we were supposed to wear the yakatas for dinner. After dinner, we were to go to the communal baths (separate for male and female). Our room didn’t have a bathroom, but there were separate male/female lavatories in the hallway, with toilets and sinks. Then, like most traditional Japanese ryokan (inns), there is one central location with hot baths, usually open only for limited hours in the evenings.
I should mention that our room was heated with space heaters and therefore relatively toasty (as long as you stayed close to one of the heaters) but the hallways were open to the elements in places and therefore freezing, and the lavatories had no heat. Andy and I donned our slippers, grabbed our towels, and made our way down the hallways, uncertain what to expect from the shared bath situation. I was picturing a chilly changing area, older fixtures, awkward moments sharing the baths with strangers, etc. Andy said, “good luck!” and we parted.
When I entered the door for the women’s bath, it was like a different world. There was a changing area that was incredibly warm and cozy, with hairdryers, towels, lotions, and other amenities. The contrast from the cold, traditional temple structure into this oasis of modern comforts was such a nice surprise. There was one other woman in there getting undressed, and both of us moved with the quiet awkwardness of not knowing where to put our clothes, where to look, how to ignore each other. She ventured through the door from the changing area into the bath first, and immediately popped back into to ask, in English, if I knew where the lights were. Whew – we both spoke English and neither of us knew what we were doing. After some fumbling, we figured it all out.
You are supposed to wash yourself very thoroughly in one of the three or four open showers, before entering the steaming hot waters of the bath, which was a large sunken area of about 25 feet by 5 feet. There was nice soap and shampoo provided for the showers, then just a few feet away you step into the bath. This was seriously divine. After a day of being absolutely soaked and numb with cold, soaking in a steaming hot bath was the best feeling in the world. Because it is so very hot, you’re not meant to stay for more than 5-10 minutes. I’m not sure how long I was in there, but long enough to totally relax and completely warm up. I felt like I was in a fancy spa.
I was so warm that the walk back through the hallways in the ~20s felt refreshing, not cold at all. I met Andy back in the room and we settled in to sleep on the mats on the floor with thick comforters. To be honest it wasn’t the most comfortable sleep of my life, but it was mostly fine. I felt really dehydrated and a bit dizzy from the hot bath so I drank a ton of water, then had to keep getting up to go to the cold lavatory in the middle of the night.
We woke early the next morning for 6:30am prayers with the monks. A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and the grounds were beautiful in the cold, clear dawn.
There were about 12 other people staying at the temple, but we hardly saw them, except for at prayers, since we all had dinner in our rooms and apparently most of us bathed at different times. We knelt for 30 minutes while the most senior monk prayed aloud. We couldn’t understand a word of these rituals, but it was easily one of the most unique, powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I thought a lot about religion on this trip, about how my views and beliefs about religion and spirituality have changed over my life, and continue to change as I get older.
Following prayers, we returned to our room where the monks had rolled up our sleeping mats and laid out breakfast while we were gone. This breakfast wasn’t quite as large as the dinner the night before, but there were quite a few dishes and again, it was all incredible. I really had no problem eating Japanese food for breakfast; having miso soup was especially nice for some reason. In that place, and that atmosphere, it just seemed like the exact right thing to do.
Before it was time to catch a bus back for our reverse journey down the mountain, and on to Kyoto for the New Year, we had a few minutes to walk around the area and take pictures of the beautiful snow-covered grounds, so different today with clear skies and sunshine.
This visit to Koyasan was a major highlight of our trip. The journey to and from was long, but that’s the point; it wouldn’t be so remote and striking if it was easy to get there. I’ll never forget the incredible experiences we had here, the intense sense of calm, and the feeling of being so far away, the reminder that there is so much more to the world than my little world.
Note: many of these pictures were taken by Andy, and there are more on his Flickr page.